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If something can’t be defined can it exist? and vice versa

If something can’t be defined can it exist? and vice versa

Some things can be defined that cannot exist, such as "A square circle in two dimensional space" or "2+2=1" --and some things can be described that do not exist but could have existed or might come to exist (unicorns). And, I suggest, that there may be indefinitely many things that exist for which we do not have any successful definition. "Consciousness" might be a candidate, insofar as some philosophers are right in thinking we may never have a good or at-least problem-free definition.

As an aside, your question raises the need for a good definition of definitions. I will not attempt such a philosophy of definitions here, but you might check out the Stanford Encyclopedia entries bearing on philosophy of language for further, useful material. Paradoxically, if nothing can exist than cannot be defined, and we have no definition of being defined, we all might be in trouble.

Thinking further: I suspect you may be principally concerned with the problem of affirming that something (X) exists, and whether this affirmation is meaningful if we lack a definition of X. On the face of it, there would be a problem with someone claiming: "Call the reporters. There is something I will refer to as 'N,' but I have absolutely no idea or definition of what 'N' might be. It could be an animal or number or time of day, for I know." Such a claim would be as bizarre as what we find in Alice in Wonderland. Even so, I suggest that we should distinguish claims about meaningful speech and claims about what does or does not exist. Even if we cannot make claims about what does or does not exist without (at least vague) definitions, it is another thing to claim that there only exists things we can make meaningful claims about. Sadly, we can imagine the whole human species perishing from some force which we cannot comprehend (and thus we cannot define) That is such a grim thought to end this reply, let me change the example: we can imagine that cancer and depression might be eradicated by a force that we human beings cannot comprehend or define.

Some things can be defined that cannot exist, such as "A square circle in two dimensional space" or "2+2=1" --and some things can be described that do not exist but could have existed or might come to exist (unicorns). And, I suggest, that there may be indefinitely many things that exist for which we do not have any successful definition. "Consciousness" might be a candidate, insofar as some philosophers are right in thinking we may never have a good or at-least problem-free definition. As an aside, your question raises the need for a good definition of definitions. I will not attempt such a philosophy of definitions here, but you might check out the Stanford Encyclopedia entries bearing on philosophy of language for further, useful material. Paradoxically, if nothing can exist than cannot be defined, and we have no definition of being defined, we all might be in trouble. Thinking further: I suspect you may be principally concerned with the problem of affirming that something (X) exists, and...

I guess some philosophers discuss whether in some exact location there is only

I guess some philosophers discuss whether in some exact location there is only one object, a statue, or two objects, the statue and the stone it is made of. Are there well-known philosophers who argue that this is a false question, a mere matter of choice of words, that there is no criterion to distinguish one object from two objects? Thank you.

You might also look into the work of philosopher Eli Hirsch (Brandeis University), who argues that various disagreements in ontology, perhaps including the one you mentioned, are "merely verbal" disagreements.

The philosopher Peter van Inwagen is rather skeptical about such relations. Although I may be wrong, but I think he is quite reluctant to believe that (strictly speaking) there are gross macroscopic objects like books and chairs and statues. These "objects" can (in principle) be described and explained in terms of simpler parts and things. I am not sure that terms like "statue" or "marble" are just a matter of words without any clear understanding of criteria / criterion of application... It seems like common sense that one might destroy a statue without destroying the material that makes up the statue. A philosopher who is highly respected but sometimes severely criticized in such matters is John Searle who (in my view) has done great work on identifying how objects exist in our "social world" as constructions through shared intentions and how some objects are not so constructed. The general area of philosophy that explores the relationship of objects and their parts is called Mereology. An...

Why did Descartes pick thinking of all possible attributes to logically

Why did Descartes pick thinking of all possible attributes to logically establish existence? Rocks exist but don't think. What exactly did he have in mind to establish? Was it really existence? Did he have any valid reason to doubt his or our existence? Wouldn't pain be a better criterion? Or movement? Or change? If a non-philosopher raised such a question we would certainly look askance at him and not value his "evidence" either way.

Aha! My answer seems to have crossed in the mail, as it were, with Charles Taliaferro's. Well, there you go, two for the price of one! The price, of course, being free: isn't this a lovely site?

Thank you for this inquiry. You are on to a very important point. First, some thoughts on Descartes: Descartes set up the ultimate skeptical project: In an age of the emergence of modern science, he asked what we can really have unmistakable certainty about? To take your example, can we have absolute, uncorrectable (incorrigible) certainty that the rocks we see and study are as they appear? He proposed the massive skeptical hypothesis: Can we rule out that there is an all powerful evil genius who is making us appear (again, using your example) to see, observe, and study the movement, change, and location of rocks when, in fact there are no such rocks? In contemporary popular cultural terms, can we rule out that we are in the Matrix? Or to use terms that were popular in the 1980s, can you rule out that your brain is now in a vat at MIT and electrochemically stimulated such that you are having all the experiences you have now and so you are in a kind of virtual world, but not an actual world? ...

Is "exist" an overburdened word? We say that ideas exist, processes exist, and

Is "exist" an overburdened word? We say that ideas exist, processes exist, and substances exist, but doesn't "exist" mean something different in each case? When we say a particular apple exists, we mean the apple takes up space in the world. When we say the sport of baseball exists, we mean there's this process that people could enact. When we say the color red exists, we mean that there's this shared subjective experience that arises from certain stimuli. When I think about whether or not certain things exist, e.g. mind, time, morality, etc., it's really tricky to know which standards to apply, that of processes, materials, or ideas. Might it be more useful to say that substances exist, processes occur, and ideas arise? Then whether or not the mind exists wouldn't even be a valid question, any more than asking whether apples occur or baseball arises. I suggested this to a professor of philosophy who's dating a friend of mine, and he said he didn't think reserving a special meaning for "exist"...

Great question! Some philosophers have actually disparaged the term "exist," possibly for similar reasons. They have thought that "exists" may be redundant, as the sentence "There is a baseball game today" seems more tidy and less odd than a sentence like "A baseball game exists today." A similar point is sometimes made about the term "true" --it appears that the sentence "Snow is white" gains little if we add "It is true that snow is white." And yet other philosophers (like Meinong) even introduced the term "subsist" to refer to things that hover between existence and non-existence. All that to one side, I suggest the terms "exist" and "true" are perfectly respectful, even if they may sometimes appear redundant. It would be apt, for example, to say that an atheist thinks God does not exist, whereas a theist believes that God exists. What you are on to with the terms you suggest (something occurs or arises) also can play an important role in articulating what it is we are talking about. There is a difference, for example, between a concrete individual thing (like a baseball) and an event (a baseball game) and it would make more sense to say "Here is a baseball" rather than "A baseball is occurring." One more point is worth noting: to say that something is the case or something exists may need a frame of reference. In ordinary contexts, the fame is evident, e.g. Bush thought there was evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But we sometimes refer to what is the case in novels, short stories, theater or in our dreams and so on. So, one can say truly that Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts, but the framework is in Rowling's novels or the movies based on them.

Great question! Some philosophers have actually disparaged the term "exist," possibly for similar reasons. They have thought that "exists" may be redundant, as the sentence "There is a baseball game today" seems more tidy and less odd than a sentence like "A baseball game exists today." A similar point is sometimes made about the term "true" --it appears that the sentence "Snow is white" gains little if we add "It is true that snow is white." And yet other philosophers (like Meinong) even introduced the term "subsist" to refer to things that hover between existence and non-existence. All that to one side, I suggest the terms "exist" and "true" are perfectly respectful, even if they may sometimes appear redundant. It would be apt, for example, to say that an atheist thinks God does not exist, whereas a theist believes that God exists. What you are on to with the terms you suggest (something occurs or arises) also can play an important role in articulating what it is we are talking about. There is a...

When discussing kinds of terms, there are certain kinds that come up often.

When discussing kinds of terms, there are certain kinds that come up often. Singular entities such as Queen Elizabeth II are one kind, categories such as cats are another, and properties such as blue are a third. However, what about substances like "gold"? Is a gold watch an instance of the property of being gold, or being made of gold? Or does the watch simply contain trillions of elements in the category "gold (atoms)"? Or is "gold" a singular entity that exists scattered throughout the Universe? Or are substances an entire category to themselves?

Very difficult and interesting question! Those of us who are Platonists and believe in abstract properties would acknowledge (maybe with some qualifications) properties like being a monarch, being feline, being blue, being a mineral, being gold, being a mineral with a certain atomic number, being a watch, being an artifact, and so on. On this view, properties can certainly be constituitive of individual objects: hence the gold watch instatiates the property of being made of gold. What might be deemed relational properties like (being a gold watch owned by a monarch) may not be constituitive, however, and may be accidental (the monarch may give the watch to a duke). While I am in the Platonist camp (I think there are truths about gold, even if there were no actual instances of gold in the world), probably more sober philosophers gravitate to some form of what is called nominalism or conceptualism. On one version, "gold" refers to a scattered object (all the gold that exists) but would lack a referent if there happens to be no gold (just as the title "The King of France" lacks a reference in the case that, as it happens, there is no King of France).

Very difficult and interesting question! Those of us who are Platonists and believe in abstract properties would acknowledge (maybe with some qualifications) properties like being a monarch, being feline, being blue, being a mineral, being gold, being a mineral with a certain atomic number, being a watch, being an artifact, and so on. On this view, properties can certainly be constituitive of individual objects: hence the gold watch instatiates the property of being made of gold. What might be deemed relational properties like (being a gold watch owned by a monarch) may not be constituitive, however, and may be accidental (the monarch may give the watch to a duke). While I am in the Platonist camp (I think there are truths about gold, even if there were no actual instances of gold in the world), probably more sober philosophers gravitate to some form of what is called nominalism or conceptualism. On one version, "gold" refers to a scattered object (all the gold that exists) but would lack a referent...

What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of anything existing? Does

What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of anything existing? Does existence exist for no apparent logical and answerable reason and therefore does not need an explanation and simply is a product of random, anomalous events, or does existence exist because there is a purpose or reason for me and existence to exist? I tend to think if there is a purpose behind existence there must be something guiding existence because existence has a purpose otherwise why exist at all. Am I alive and self aware and exist because something made me exist or am I the result of a randomness of phenomenon that allowed me to develop the conscious ability to question my existence and therefore find some justification for my existence even though the questioning of existence is pointless in any case? In other words do I and everyone else exist for a reason or is there meant to be no apparent reason for my existence therefore I am allowed free reign to believe I exist for some apparent reason which may or may not be a...

You certainly have asked THE big question! Many religious thinkers do believe that there is a meaning to life and a purpose as well. For a good representation of a broadly Christian point of view (but one that would be satisfying to traditional Jews, Muslims, and some Hindus) you might check out Mark Wynn's book God and Goodness. In this philosophy, you and the cosmos as a whole exist because it is good that you and the cosmos exist; moreover, it is created by an all good God whose purpose for creating was to being about goodness. I personally adopt such a position, but many fellow philosophers do not, either because they simply deny that there is a God or they are suspicious about objective values like goodness. But leaving aside religious concerns, if you simply recognize values like happiness (or flourishing) then you will find yourself among many philosophers (religious and secular) who think that a big part or the meaning of life (its point) is for there to be human flourishing, and going beyond that a flourishing of the whole community or body of living things that make up our planet. Aristotle is a good source on that, and a modern defender of happiness as the meaning of life today is Stewart Goetz.

Some of the things you might want to distinguish in your question: when someone asks for the meaning of life, I suggest two questions are at issue: the person is asking "what exists?" and "what should I value?" The first question is (I think) unavoidable and it has an answer even if no one knows that that answer is. In other words, either there is some kind of God or not, either there is some purpose for the cosmos or not, and so on... The second may lead in two directions. The first is the one I take which is that there really are goods and ills (justice and friendship really should be valued and cruelty and injustice should really be avoided or fought). A second approach is more skeptical and assumes that there are no real objective values. On this account, values might actually simply come down to felt, changing preferences. Then there is also a middle of the road: some things are objectively good and somethings (like whether you choose to have a romantic partner or a lifetime of celebacy --as the great scientist Newton chose and was proud of it).

Good wishes! For another great book on all this, check out Thomas Nagel's short book on what it all means (approximate title).

You certainly have asked THE big question! Many religious thinkers do believe that there is a meaning to life and a purpose as well. For a good representation of a broadly Christian point of view (but one that would be satisfying to traditional Jews, Muslims, and some Hindus) you might check out Mark Wynn's book God and Goodness. In this philosophy, you and the cosmos as a whole exist because it is good that you and the cosmos exist; moreover, it is created by an all good God whose purpose for creating was to being about goodness. I personally adopt such a position, but many fellow philosophers do not, either because they simply deny that there is a God or they are suspicious about objective values like goodness. But leaving aside religious concerns, if you simply recognize values like happiness (or flourishing) then you will find yourself among many philosophers (religious and secular) who think that a big part or the meaning of life (its point) is for there to be human flourishing, and going...

Suppose I tell my friend that leprechauns don't exist. He responds: "Well, not

Suppose I tell my friend that leprechauns don't exist. He responds: "Well, not in THIS realm, they don't. But they MIGHT exist in some hitherto undiscovered realm." To what extent does the claim 'X exists' depend on its being discoverable, or knowable? As a curious person, this question has really bothered me the past few days. There's something comforting about having knowledge, and that there might be an infinite amount of unknowables is rather disconcerting to me. Does Ayer's position -- that for a claim to be meaningful it must either be tautological or empirically veriable -- apply here? If someone could shed some light on this quandary, I'd be immensely appreciative. I really don't know my I allow myself to be bothered my these types of philosophical questions.

While Ayer's verificationism has gone out of fashion (he and others could not settle on a formulation of it that did not rule out science or some such apparently meaningful discourse) there are forms of what is called anti-realism which define 'truth' in terms of warranted assertability, which would rule out the possibility of there being truths that are out of reach from what we can know (at least in principle). Alas, there is a good argument against such a position in Thomas Nagel's work The View From Nowhere.

One other idea to consider is that your friend may be right but in a way that has nothing to do with THIS (our) world. Some philosophers (David Lewis etc) have argued that there are indefinitely many POSSIBLE WORLDS. So, you might reply that, yes, leprechauns actually do exist but in a possible world not remotely related to ours! Check out Lewis's book on the plurality of worlds. It is awesome.

While Ayer's verificationism has gone out of fashion (he and others could not settle on a formulation of it that did not rule out science or some such apparently meaningful discourse) there are forms of what is called anti-realism which define 'truth' in terms of warranted assertability, which would rule out the possibility of there being truths that are out of reach from what we can know (at least in principle). Alas, there is a good argument against such a position in Thomas Nagel's work The View From Nowhere. One other idea to consider is that your friend may be right but in a way that has nothing to do with THIS (our) world. Some philosophers (David Lewis etc) have argued that there are indefinitely many POSSIBLE WORLDS. So, you might reply that, yes, leprechauns actually do exist but in a possible world not remotely related to ours! Check out Lewis's book on the plurality of worlds. It is awesome.

How do novels, plays, or works of music exist?

How do novels, plays, or works of music exist? Consider the Iliad. The original copy of the Iliad was lost long, long ago, yet the Iliad continues to exist through its copies. If all original-language versions of the Iliad were to disappear, leaving only translations, one would assume the Iliad would continue to exist. What if all copies of the Iliad in any language and in any material form were destroyed, and we were left with nothing but the memory of the Iliad? Would it then cease to exist, until someone (presumably with photographic memory) decided to write it down again? What if all memory and knowledge of the Iliad were erased, but copies still existed, lying around in old boxes where nobody remembered them? Would it still exist if this were the case? How can we conceptualize the existence of things, like an ancient epic poem, which exist in physical form yet are not dependent on these forms?

These are great questions! Some works of art seem quite anchored in the material world. Arguably, a marble statue like the David is in Florence. But poems, plays, novels, musical compositions, and so on do seem more elusive. Some philosophers who might be called Platonists tend to think that poems, plays, and the like are not themselves physical events or objects. On this view, the Iliad may be thought of as an abstract object that can be acted out, recited, written down, remembered, loved or hated, but the epic poem is not itself a physical thing. I am very much drawn to such a position and have defended it (in a short book called Aesthetics; A Beginner's Guide), but many philosophers resist recognizing abstract, non-physical objects. Such philosophers (who might be called nominalists or conceptualists) might have to identify the Iliad as a complex cultural object that has multiple linguistic and social dimensions. For them, the Iliad's status may depend upon an on-going social practice, but for those of us in the Platonic camp, we think that the Iliad still exists even if all records of it fanish. In such conditions, there would still be truths about the Iliad. For example, in such a post-Homeric world, it would still be true that Achilles kills Hector in battle before his beloved city of Troy. Nicholas Wolterstorff has a good book on such topics called (I believe) Works of Art.

These are great questions! Some works of art seem quite anchored in the material world. Arguably, a marble statue like the David is in Florence. But poems, plays, novels, musical compositions, and so on do seem more elusive. Some philosophers who might be called Platonists tend to think that poems, plays, and the like are not themselves physical events or objects. On this view, the Iliad may be thought of as an abstract object that can be acted out, recited, written down, remembered, loved or hated, but the epic poem is not itself a physical thing. I am very much drawn to such a position and have defended it (in a short book called Aesthetics; A Beginner's Guide), but many philosophers resist recognizing abstract, non-physical objects. Such philosophers (who might be called nominalists or conceptualists) might have to identify the Iliad as a complex cultural object that has multiple linguistic and social dimensions. For them, the Iliad's status may depend upon an on-going social practice, but for...

Hi;

Hi; Rene Descartes concluded "cogito, ergo sum", but this only raises a deeper question in my mind as to why do I exist? Is this a legitimate Philosophical question, and if so how does one go about answering it? cheers Pasquale

Yes, this is very much an important philosophical matter. Inquiry into why one exists usually involves a combination of metaphysics (inquiry into what exists) and value theory. There are two major schools of thought about why you or the cosmos exists, and multiple alternatives in between. On the one hand there are teleological accounts of the cosmos, according to which you and the cosmos exist for some purpose or value. In many religions (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam), this purpose or value is goodness itself. To put things a bit simply, the reason why the cosmos (including you) exist is because it is good (or, putting it differently, it is better that the cosmos exists rather than not exist). These relgions generally understand God as essentially good and thus beleive that the cosmos (despite its evil) is the result and is sustained by a good divine reality. On the other hand, there are non-teleological accounts of the cosmos, which claim that there is no purposive end or value as to why the cosmos exists. On this view, there are causal accounts as to why you exist (perhaps involving physics and biology) but there is no purposive moral or religious or aesthetic end involved.

Apart from metaphysics and value theory, your question is also taken up by philosophers under the general heading 'the meaning of life.' Thomas Nagel has a short book on this topic called (something like) 'what it all means.' You might check that out, Pasquale.

Highest regard, CT

Yes, this is very much an important philosophical matter. Inquiry into why one exists usually involves a combination of metaphysics (inquiry into what exists) and value theory. There are two major schools of thought about why you or the cosmos exists, and multiple alternatives in between. On the one hand there are teleological accounts of the cosmos, according to which you and the cosmos exist for some purpose or value. In many religions (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam), this purpose or value is goodness itself. To put things a bit simply, the reason why the cosmos (including you) exist is because it is good (or, putting it differently, it is better that the cosmos exists rather than not exist). These relgions generally understand God as essentially good and thus beleive that the cosmos (despite its evil) is the result and is sustained by a good divine reality. On the other hand, there are non-teleological accounts of the cosmos, which claim that there is no purposive end or value as to why...

Is it possible to conceive of an irrational entity or can only rational things

Is it possible to conceive of an irrational entity or can only rational things be conceived of? Can irrational things exist? Of course it depend on how you define rational but maybe vagueness has more creative potential for philosophical thought.

You are right that the answer or reply will depend on what is meant by "rational" and "irrational." If "irrational" means something (some state of affairs or entity) that defies the laws of logic, this is doubtful. Take the law of identity (everything is itself or A is A) and the law of non-contradiction (A is not not A). Thinking or speaking seems to require both; we must assume that when we think of A (whatever), we are thinking of A and this is not the same as thinking of notA. But if "irrational hings" is more broadly defined and refers to subjects who act or think in ways that seem unreasonable or (at least to us) unintelligible, then matters change. If we pursue this a bit further, though, and ask about how irrational an agent might be, we may come up with some internal limits. That is, so long as a person is acting it may be that she or he has to have some reason or other for their action; the reason may be very odd or fleeting or not fully conscious or out of touch with reality, but if a person acts on the basis of no reason whatsoever (even subconscious) we may think that the person is not so much acting but reacting or merely moving or he or she has become the equivalent of a zombie.

You are right that the answer or reply will depend on what is meant by "rational" and "irrational." If "irrational" means something (some state of affairs or entity) that defies the laws of logic, this is doubtful. Take the law of identity (everything is itself or A is A) and the law of non-contradiction (A is not not A). Thinking or speaking seems to require both; we must assume that when we think of A (whatever), we are thinking of A and this is not the same as thinking of notA. But if "irrational hings" is more broadly defined and refers to subjects who act or think in ways that seem unreasonable or (at least to us) unintelligible, then matters change. If we pursue this a bit further, though, and ask about how irrational an agent might be, we may come up with some internal limits. That is, so long as a person is acting it may be that she or he has to have some reason or other for their action; the reason may be very odd or fleeting or not fully conscious or out of touch with reality, but if a...

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